Theresa Vail knew that she would draw special attention when she stepped on stage at the 2013 Miss America pageant. It wasn’t because of her military service, her openness to discussing her faith, or her passion for shooting the outdoors. It was her ink.
Vail was the first Miss America contestant to display her tattoos during the swimwear portion of the pageant, and when she stepped out on stage the words of Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer were right there with her as she waved at the crowd of forty thousand people. Cameras traced her path across the stage, broadcasting her image to millions of homes around the world. For those who first heard the name Theresa Vail when the 22 year-old blonde from Manhattan, Kansas, stepped into the national spotlight, the tattoos may have been a shock.
But when you speak to Vail, you begin to understand just what that walk across the stage meant to her. It was a statement to the world, a refusal to hide who she really was. That includes her beliefs, her love of hunting, her pride in her military service, and, yes, her tattoos.
I had a chance to speak with Theresa on a Friday afternoon while she was between public appearances, another hectic day in the life of the America’s Choice Winner (over a half a million viewers watched her Youtube video where Vail discusses why she should be crowned Miss America, and the response was overwhelming).
She’s easy to talk to and straightforward, talking as honestly and openly about the tough times in her life–Vail was bullied as a child, and feeling desperate and alone she attempted suicide at the age of ten–as she does about the many victories; she joined the military at the age of seventeen, completed advanced individual training to become a mechanic before she enrolled in college, finished the punishing Bataan Death March twice, and was selected as Miss Kansas.
Vail was raised a Catholic from childhood, but she says that it was in the woods with her father that she found comfort and, later, spirituality as a child. At her lowest, Vail turned to the woods and felt at home, and that passion for the outdoors has stayed with her throughout her life. Hunting was a challenge, at times physical, and times mental, and oftentimes both. Vail embraced that challenge with enthusiasm, the same way she would face other challenges later in her life. And if you need to know one thing about Theresa Vail it is that she isn’t afraid of a challenge.
For over half of her life Vail has been a hunter, and she’s never shied away from open discussions about hunting and conservation with the media. For Vail, hunting is a way of life, a sport which she is as passionate about and committed to as even the most hard-core enthusiast.
Vail comes from a large military family, one of nine children. She was born in Fort Drum, New York, and moved to Manhattan, Kansas, at the age of thirteen. She credits her father with teaching her to hunt and to appreciate the outdoors. At the age of ten, he took her to the woods so that they could spend some time together and away from their crowded home.
For a beautiful young woman, she’s something of an old soul, appreciative of the sights and sounds of the woods, comfortable in the silence. She’s open and honest and Vail credits much of the turnaround to her enlistment in the armed forces. There, she says, she learned the confidence and poise that carried her across the Miss America stage.
“Joining the Army taught me about sacrifice, personal responsibility, and taking credit for what I had done wrong and right,” she says. “I learned to be a professional.”
Vail says she feels best about herself when she’s doing something for others, which again initially seems like the public address of a beauty pageant contestant. That is until you realize that Vail has dedicated herself to military life and the medical profession, and that as the Miss Kansas crown continues to be handed down from one year to the next Theresa Vail will still be serving in the armed forces. She’s multi-dimensional, capable of wearing many hats. While many of the contestants in the Miss America pageant look good in swimwear and formal gowns, Theresa is equally as comfortable in camo bibs and grease-stained uniform pants.
“Military service makes me feel like I have a purpose,” Vail says.
If the duality of a pageant queen who serves as a mechanic in the military leaves you feeling that you don’t really know Theresa Vail at all, then you might just understand Miss Kansas better than you think you do. She’s a “courage to change the things I can” kind of girl, pushing boundaries, breaking down stereotypes, stepping all over convention.
In 2014, she took three contestants in the Miss Kansas pageant to New Mexico for a charity event called the "Bataan Death March." The purpose of taking these young women to New Mexico was twofold; they would gain an appreciation for the sacrifices and effort of American soldiers while simultaneously facing a tremendous physical challenge. The three contestants all completed the race, and Theresa finished as well. The contestants opted for the light division, Vail carried the heaviest ruck possible.
Twenty-three is awfully young to have seen your life come full-circle, but for Vail that’s just what’s happened. The bullied little girl has become a beautiful woman who fights for the rights of others. The girl who treasured her time alone in the sanctuary of the forest has seen herself thrust onto one of the world’s highest stages. She’s the poised pageant queen in high heels and a dress that can discuss the finer points of bowhunting whitetails.
When she bore her tattooed torso on stage, America got to see a snapshot of the real Theresa Vail, the one who loves pushing boundaries and pushing herself. She told me that she was nervous before she walked out on stage, which surprised me a bit from someone as composed and collected as she is. But when Vail hit the stage, the crowd erupted into a series of cheers, shouting, “Kansas! Kansas!”
Bearing her tattoos may or may not have cost Theresa Vail the crown, but it doesn’t matter. Not to Theresa, anyway. The important part of walking across stage wasn’t winning, it was showing up and showing the world who she was (see what I mean about the old soul thing?). Vail wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I was standing up for what I believed was right whether society agreed with it or not,” she says. “I’m not silent about my faith or my views. I think women should embrace who they are.”
Theresa’s new show, Limitless with Theresa Vail, debuts on the Outdoor Channel in July, 2015.